Many of the colorful yarns involving Francis Michael “King” Clancy, whose Hall of Fame career extended to refereeing, coaching and serving as an assistant general manager, ambassador and raconteur, come in different versions, perhaps seasoned with a touch of blarney, including those stories he told himself.
Some things, however, are indisputable: The King, a defenseman for the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, was one of hockey’s most beloved figures, spry with a high-pitched voice and a face that looked, as Toronto journalist Trent Frayne once wrote, “like a Dublin back alley.”
Clancy believed that “hockey was a joyous kind of game.” And that’s how he played it — for fun. His professional playing career lasted 15 full seasons during some of the game’s wildest years and began when half the League still played on natural ice. He was part of the NHL’s first dynasty — the Senators of Eddie Gerard, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, Punch Broadbent, Clint Benedict and Georges “Buck” Boucher, all Hall of Famers – and played with Toronto in the early years of the hockey palace on Carlton Street, Maple Leaf Gardens.
Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe credited Clancy’s box office appeal with making the Gardens possible. In an era that included huge gate attractions Eddie Shore and Howie Morenz, the effervescent Clancy was probably their equal, or at least close to it, in selling tickets.
These facts are also indisputable: Clancy was a three-time Stanley Cup champion who played in the Cup Final six times. After the NHL began selecting First and Second All-Star teams in 1930-31, he made one each of the first four seasons. He also might have been the NHL’s Rookie of the Year had that award existed in 1922.
When he retired in November 1936, Clancy was the highest-scoring defenseman in NHL history with 283 points in 592 games. He was also first among defensemen in goals with 136. He hit double digits in goals, uncommon for a defenseman, in six seasons, and in three seasons he finished among the League’s top 20 scorers, also rare at his position.
“There were few defensemen in NHL history as small as he,” wrote Frayne, “or with a heart as big. His play was inspirational.”
Clancy was also incredibly tough and resilient, particularly for a player who only grew to maybe 5-foot-7 and who, at his heaviest, was generously listed as 155 pounds. He’d lead rushes up the ice – which few defensemen did then – often crashing into opponents who outweighed him by 50 pounds or more.
Despite all that, he’d maintain he was never injured. “I guess I had a hundred stitches in my face, but I was never what you’d call good lookin’,” he told Frayne in the book “The Mad Men of Hockey.” “I always said you never get hurt as long as you play with a reckless abandon.” And that he did.
He also kept up something of a running dialogue with teammates, officials and opponents during games. “He was a damned nuisance,” said former Canadiens forward Aurel Joliat. “He could really get people worked up with that mouth of his.”
One of King’s favorite verbal targets was the Boston Bruins’ Shore, his biggest rival among the game’s top defensemen, aside from Toronto’s Hap Day, who would become his teammate on the Maple Leafs. During one Boston-Toronto game, Clancy belted the larger Shore into the boards. “In a flash, he turned on me,” Clancy said in his biography, “Clancy: The King’s Story,” “with one big mitt raised ready to let me have it. ‘Hello, Eddie,’ I countered, quickly grabbing his extended fist and pumping his arm up and down, ‘And how are you tonight?’ Before he realized what was happening to him, Shore had mumbled, ‘I’m pretty good, Clancy. And how are you?'”
In Game 2 of their 1936 playoff encounter, Shore got upset at a key moment when Maple Leafs forward Charlie Conacher first clocked Red Beattie and then Shore but escaped being penalized by referee Odie Cleghorn. Before the next faceoff, Clancy sidled up to Shore and whispered, “Cleghorn is blind, Eddie. He’s robbing you sure as hell. Look how he blew that call on Beattie.” That sent Shore into a rage, and he attacked Cleghorn, drawing a minor penalty. Then Shore fired a puck at the ref, earning a 10-minute misconduct. The Maple Leafs scored four goals with Shore in the box to win the game and the total-goals, quarterfinal series.
It was said that Clancy was in hundreds of fights and never won one, mainly because bigger teammates like Conacher defended him. The King often said that his only win came in Boston against Shore, whom one of Clancy’s teammates had flattened. As Shore rose to his knees, Clancy socked him. Clancy recounted, “Getting to his feet, he snarled, ‘Do that again, Clancy.’ ‘Okay, Eddie,’ I remember saying. ‘Get back down on your knees.'”
The tradition of fighting in the NHL was never more apparent than during Clancy’s era, and despite his size he was a very willing pugilist. Tales of his involvement fill hockey history books like “The Montreal Maroons.” In it, author William Brown describes one especially wild end-of-game brawl in February 1932 between the Maroons and Maple Leafs in which numerous combatants squared off, including Montreal’s Nels Stewart and Toronto’s Alex Levinsky, although some accounts say it involved Clancy alone. In Brown’s telling, the King tried to aid Levinsky but was intercepted by a flying tackle from Harold Starr.
“The brawl took an odd turn when Stewart suddenly came bounding over to the Montreal bench, clutching his left hand,” Brown wrote. “One of the punches intended for Levinsky had missed and found the goalpost instead. Clancy, who had been waiting in line for a shot at Stewart, grabbed him by the arm and popped the dislocated thumb back into place. But as soon as the pain left Stewart’s face, Clancy took a swing at him and the brawl was on again.”
This sort of action wasn’t confined to the players. On the road, “I’d get pushed in along the fence by a rival player and a fan would lean over and give me a good punch in the mouth,” Clancy said in his biography. “There were fights every night. Sometimes when a fan would give you a belt on your ear, you’d lose your temper and wade into the stands after him. You’d get belted in there again, too!”
One night in Boston, he was razzed by a fan so unmercifully that Clancy challenged the guy to meet him outside after the game to “show how tough you really are.” Conacher skated over to Clancy and said, “If you beat that guy, you’ll be the new heavyweight champion of the world. That’s Jack Sharkey,” who at the time held the heavyweight crown.
These anecdotes were as much a part of Clancy’s essence as a hockey star as his goals and assists and illustrate his indomitable, blithe spirit and unsurpassed will to win.
That spirit was evident from the start with Clancy. Called Frankie as a youth, he was the son of Ottawa football star Thomas Clancy, who was nicknamed “King.” If there was a game anywhere near his Ottawa home, Frankie would join in no matter how big or small the skaters. He’d often come home in the evening battered and bloodied, saying, “Well, I guess I showed ’em today, Pop.”
As a teenager he played with the amateur St. Brigid’s Athletic Club of the Ottawa City Senior League. In the league final, after a teammate was injured, Clancy took his spot and, in the two-game series in front of 5,000 fans, “Clancy took every eye,” legendary Toronto sportswriter Baz O’Meara wrote. Two of those eyes belonged to Ottawa Senators coach Pete Green, who called Clancy “Man o’ War on skates,” comparing him to the great thoroughbred racehorse of the day.
At his training camp tryout, Boucher, Denneny, Broadbent and the rest bounced the little guy around rather hard, but he kept coming back for more and the Senators signed him to be a reserve player. Clancy debuted in the NHL on Dec. 17, 1921. At 18, he was the first teenager to play in the League. He allegedly weighed 150 pounds.
In his biography, Clancy claimed he scored the overtime winner against Hamilton in his first game on his first shift with his first shot, a backhander he flung at the net from a very sharp angle. But his first goal came on in his third game, on Dec. 24. Whichever goal was his first, Clancy would never forget the goal judge waving his handkerchief to signal a score. To Clancy, that handkerchief “looked as big as a bed sheet.”
When he wasn’t conspicuously yelling encouragement from the bench, he was subbed in with increasing frequency on Ottawa’s defense. Green even used him as a forward.
The next season, with the Senators dealing with injuries, Clancy began getting more ice time. During the 1923 Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Eskimos, each of the five regulars – Gerard, Boucher, Nighbor, Denneny and Broadbent – had to go off for repairs or because of fatigue. Clancy filled in for each. And then goalie Benedict had to serve a penalty. On his way off, he threw his stick to Clancy, saying, “Here kid, take care of this place until I get back.” Clancy said he looked at Benedict incredulously and replied, “Are you crazy?”
Some have claimed Clancy volunteered to replace Benedict; others have described the incident as coming in an earlier round against Vancouver. In any case, he stood in there, not allowing a goal. Most accounts say he didn’t face a shot and some say he actually brought the puck down the ice at one point with Benedict’s big chunk of lumber. What is known is that this meant Clancy played every position during a Stanley Cup Playoff game, the only time it has ever been done.
In Game 2, with Ottawa leading 1-0, Clancy was sent out to use his speed and stickhandling to control the puck as much as possible in the third period. He estimated he had possession for 15 of the 20 minutes, and Edmonton could not tie the game. He called it “the greatest performance of my life” and the Senators clinched the best-of-three series and won the Cup.
Gerard retired that offseason and Clancy became a starter, getting a hat trick late in the 1923-24 season, almost unheard of for a defenseman. His offensive style did not go over well with many observers at first, but “by the time he led Ottawa to another Stanley Cup in 1927 his admirers were legion,” wrote Montreal journalist Andy O’Brien.
Clancy rose to superstardom and was named Senators captain, but he would not remain in Ottawa. The Senators’ fiscal picture grew dim, and in Toronto, Smythe, who bought the Maple Leafs in ’27, was patiently building Toronto into a young, exciting team that filled the 6,000-seat Mutual Street Arena beyond capacity. He wanted a new, larger building and determined that an established star would help lure the necessary funding. Clancy became a prime target, especially after scoring 17 goals and 40 points in 44 games with the Senators in 1929-30, his most productive season.
On Oct. 11, 1930, Clancy was traded to Toronto for $35,000 and two players. For the next six seasons, Clancy helped lead a raucous Maple Leafs team that won the Cup in 1932, their first season in the new arena. Clancy was named to either the First or Second All-Star Team in each of his first four seasons with the Maple Leafs.
But his hell-bent style had begun to take a greater toll. The King, who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1958, retired in November 1936, but his legacy was secure.
As CBC Radio sports commentator Ron McAllister wrote, Clancy was “a driving, fighting, talking, pushing, 60-minute player – one of the truly greats of the game.”